Why food should go back to the future

Truly modern nutritional advice, as opposed to the magic-bullet, snake-oil kind that has become the norm, veers closer and closer to folk wisdom, writes Colin Tudge in this excerpt from his new book.

Truly modern nutritional advice, as opposed to the magic-bullet, snake-oil kind that has become the norm, veers closer and closer to folk wisdom. Thus, we were told in the old days ‘eat what grows naturally’.

Which accords perfectly with the modern insights into gut microbes and cryptonutrients: the evolutionary idea that our gut flora and our general physiology have largely become adapted to the myriad products of nature over the millions and billions of years through which our human and pre-human ancestors have been exposed to them, and are not adapted to laboratory novelties. The fact that it has sometimes been shown that those novelties do not cause cancer or general collywobbles in laboratory rats tells us little about their total effects on human beings throughout their lives. 

In wondrous contrast to the general germ warning, our grannies were also wont to tell us to ‘eat a peck of dirt before you die’.

I confess I have met only one other person – an octogenarian – who remembers this adage, but it was certainly current in my day. It can of course be taken too far. Hygiene still matters of course. E coli and Listeria are always ready to pounce and the horrors of Covid-19 remind us yet again that mutant organisms can arise at any time and cause havoc; bring the whole world to its knees indeed. Yet the old motto makes sense, nonetheless. We need to nourish and cultivate the gut flora just as farmers need to nourish the microbes that turn dirt in to soil. Extreme hygiene in extreme circumstances is necessary but in normal times it can very definitely be counterproductive. 

Our forebears were also wont to assure us that ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’.


Again, this seems perfectly in line with most modern theory, including the advice to eat a diet that’s as varied as possible. These days too zoologists and vets are very impressed by the ways in which animals may go to great lengths to seek out particular herbs and minerals that they know, by whatever means, will make them feel better. Thus, enlightened zoo-keepers and farmers provide their charges with patches of herbs which, demonstrably, the animals seek out when they are feeling poorly (as revealed, for example, by loose stools and general mopiness).

Land animals of all kinds know when they are short of salt and may walk many miles to the nearest lick, as elephants and Arabian oryx do; and macaws stoke up on kaolin to sequester the toxins that perfuse their natural diets; and so on. 

The stress, though, seems to be on ‘a little’ because as Waldo Emerson advised, and I remember being advised, we should adopt moderation in all things, which seems pretty sound in most contexts. 

Overall, too, the modern nutritional advice as outlined above – a moderate intake of protein, high fibre, plenty of micro- and cryptonutrients and the rest – can be boiled down to nine words: Plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.

This irreducibly simple motto tells us more or less everything we need to know. Just cook and eat with these nine words in mind and you should not go far wrong. 

This little adage too leads us into a series of huge serendipities, suggesting that God really is on our side. First, agroecological farming focuses primarily on arable and horticulture, both as various as possible, with livestock fitted in as and when. So indeed it provides plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety.

If we don’t want to become farmers, all we need to do is re-learn the craft of cooking.

Secondly, as N W Pirie pointed out, all the great cuisines use meat sparingly but to maximum effect, and we may also observe that all the great cuisines make maximum use of all the herbs, nuts, wild fruits, and spices that grow locally (and they sometimes import spices from far and wide, which it is perfectly reasonable to do). In other words, plenty of plants, not much meat, and maximum variety also describes the basic structure of all the world’s greatest cuisines. 

In other words: there is perfect correspondence between agroecology, sound nutrition, and the world’s greatest cuisines.  

In other words, if we want to be healthy, and really want to keep the world as a whole in good heart, we just have to take food seriously; value whatever grows and has been grown with tender loving care. In other words, the future belongs to the gourmet. 

This again is in the sharpest contrast to what we have been told from on high, which is that if we want to survive in large numbers then we have to tighten our belts and/or live on the various kinds of ersatz, like the various kinds of ‘textured vegetable protein’ – textured, that is, to resemble the fibres of meat. Such lifesavers can, of course, be produced only by courtesy of high-tech food companies; and so we are invited once more to give thanks to the corporates for our salvation. 

In fact, all we really have to do, if we don’t ourselves want to become farmers, is re-learn the arts and crafts of cooking.

It would of course be good to emulate the world’s great cooks but that doesn’t necessarily mean the most famous. In the history of the world many millions of people were and still are great cooks, albeit working in tiny kitchens (or indeed with a pile of brass pots over a single tiny fire, as I have seen on the streets of Mumbai, though that is clearly far from ideal).

Raymond Blanc is among the world-renowned chefs who emphasise the absolute importance of traditional cooking, which largely means peasant cooking. He learnt to cook at home, he says. So, surely, did many or most of the world’s greatest. 

This is an excerpt from The Great Re-Think, by Colin Tudge, available to pre-order via Waterstones, and published by Pari Publishing. 


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